If you believe the lore of Star Trek, the voyages of the Starship Enterprise are to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” There’s nothing in there about waging war against bad guys, blowing stuff up, and generally causing mayhem in every corner of the universe.

It’s a good thing director JJ Abrams decided to take a little liberty; there’s no telling what Star Trek: Into Darkness would have looked like otherwise. As it stands, it not only outshines his original 2009 film, it definitively stakes its claim as one of the most entertaining movies of the year.

And while much of what you’ll remember of Into Darkness is the crazy-good visual effects and breakneck action, its success also lies with the deft performances of the cast, including Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Picking up not long after where the first film left off, Into Darkness (after a brief prelude) begins with a bombing at Starfleet Archives in London, followed quickly by an attack on Starfleet Command in San Francisco. The man behind the carnage is known only as John Harrison (Cumberbatch), though his true identity is revealed not long after. (Fans of the original Star Trek universe will get a kick out of it.)

Kirk (Pine), Spock (Quinto), and the rest of the Enterprise crew, including Bones (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) take on the mission of tracking down Harrison and bringing him to justice.

Abrams, who took some flak for so drastically re-configuring the Star Trek universe in the first film, unapologetically continues in that vein here, while at the same time tossing in more than a handful of Trekkie lore and goodies (including an extended Klingon-speak scene) to make sure everyone’s happy. And it’s hard to imagine anyone not being thoroughly entertained.

More than that, though, the actors seem to have matured considerably from their first outing four years ago. Of course, much of it lies with the improved script from Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, but the talents of Pine and Quinto, especially, help transcend it, resulting in a much more emotional story. This isn’t just a big-bang-boom summer flick.

Have no fear, though, it’s also frequently hilarious (thanks in large part to Pegg), and occasionally even terrifying.

We’re still more than a month away from the official start of summer, but it’s going to take quite a bit to out-do May’s colossal one-two punch of Iron Man 3 and Star Trek: Into Darkness.

4.5/5 stars